Nov 9, 2011

When Billy Graham met Woody Allen

Billy Graham was a pop culture figure from basically the beginning. In addition to all the other things he has been, there's this really fascinating parade of iconic, pop culture moments where Graham is paired with another famous person. They're often weird and, to me, feel counter intuitive. They're often also enlightening in how they stage the kinds of cultural alliances and divides that marked and made recent history.

Graham and Bette Paige.
Graham and Muhammed Ali.
Graham and William F. Buckley (where Graham says he believes in aliens).
Graham and William Randolph Hearst.
Graham skinny dipping with LBJ.
Graham in disguise at a love-in.
Graham and Nixon talking about Jews.

And so on.

For Graham's 93rd birthday, this week, someone dug up and passed along one of these moments: Graham being interviewed by Woody Allen.

Some thoughts:

1. It's really interesting to me how totally square Graham seems, here. Allen isn't arguing, really. He's in it for the joke. And Graham is completely straight -- offering himself as the set up to Allen's jokes, and not responding with cracks of his own. He's the middle class father, Allen the smart-ass kid. The meeting is an almost perfect face-off between the earnestness of quoting Bible passages that would go well on cross-stictched samplers and the wry humor of one-liners, late-night sarcasm. Depending on your position, this is either a meeting in the genre of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, or of Michael Douglas in Falling Down asking for breakfast.

2. Graham doesn't resist, even in the slightest, being framed as most essentially a moralist. He doesn't counter Allen's assumption that religion or Christianity specifically is about rules, and middle class moralism. He doesn't say something like, "no, you're missing the point," but instead offers an analogy where sex outside of marriage is like baseball without rules. It's an almost perfect presentation of that very American, Eisenhower-esque moral deism that's so centered on being a good person. This is Christianity as the underpinnings of the cultural conservative status quo. Religion, here, is this generic thing that functions to re-affirm social mores, to be valued to the extend it shores up order and staves off anarchy.

3. I can't really imagine any scenario where this meeting of Allen and Graham changes either one of them. Imagine this conversation went on for eternity. Like in the purgatory of John Paul Sartre's No Exit. Could it ever reach the point where they weren't talking past each other? Where they understood each other's fundamental concerns? Is there a possible way this meeting could go that would leave either Allen or Graham somehow changed?

4. There two strangely beautiful and I think moving moments in this interview. First is Woody Allen's pose when he's asked about his worst sin. He's really curled into himself, wracked by the question. Second, Graham says "God is perfect," and Allen quips, "when I look at myself in the mirror in the morning, it's hard for me to believe that." There's applause, which is strange when you think about it. Then Graham says "in God's sight, you are beautiful ... He made you like you are. He made you Woody Allen." Allen all but blushes.

5. Graham isn't just preaching moral deism, but moral therapeutic deism. The ultimate point of religion, of Christianity, of rules and morals, of everything God has said, as presented by Graham in this interview, is individual happiness. His message, here, is consistent with the American self-help hegemony, and the therapeutic turn. Andrew Finstuen explored this more fully in comparing Graham's rendition of Johnathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of Angry God" with the original, but it's perhaps never been clearer that personal happiness is the point and the goal, for Graham, than it is here where he tells Woody Allen, "God said 'I want you to be happy.'" There is an argument and a defense for that idea, of course, which one finds in John Piper's exposition of "Christian Hedonism" or, say, in Prosperity Gospel, but this moment is still really striking. Graham makes it seem so obvious that this is God's greatest hope, as if the point needed no argument and there really were a Bible verse somewhere where God said "I want you to be happy."